In both cases, there are a number of specific skills that we can help our students develop to become better able to contribute effectively to group discussions.
- Why teach group discussion skills?
- Types of discussion
- Useful sub-skills for students
- Setting up group discussions
- Giving and encouraging feedback
Why teach group discussion skills?
Developing group discussion skills is useful for everyday life as we regularly find ourselves having discussions amongst friends, family and colleagues. These may vary from very informal chats about day-to-day things, to more serious topics, for example a discussion about a recent news story or a problem that needs to be solved.
- Additionally, group discussions are increasingly being used in the job market during interviews and selection procedures. These can take a variety of formats, but the key skills remain very similar.
- Last but not least, group discussions offer an opportunity for extended speaking (and listening!) practice by all of the contributors. Group discussion practice and skill development is therefore useful for all students.
Types of discussion
There are a variety of different types of discussions that occur naturally and which we can recreate in the classroom. These include discussions where the participants have to:
- Make decisions (e.g. decide who to invite to a party and where to seat them)
- Give and / or share their opinions on a given topic (e.g. discussing beliefs about the effectiveness of capital punishment)
- Create something (e.g. plan and make a poster as a medium for feedback on a language course)
- Solve a problem (e.g. discussing the situations behind a series of logic problems)
Some discussion topics may fall into more than one of these categories, but it is useful to consider a variety of formats to which the students can apply the skills they are learning.
Useful sub-skills for students
There are a number of different sub-skills which students will need to be able to successfully and effectively participate in a group discussion. Students need to develop the ability to:
This skill can be developed by giving students the topic individually and asking them to brainstorm or mind-map all of the possible sub-topics they could speak about. The students can then swap their notes and assess or analyse the relevance of each of the sub-topics their partner has included. Together, the students then draw up a fresh list or mind-map and discuss how the sub-topics might be linked together, along with examples or reasons for any arguments they might have.
This skill comes in useful when students need to make decisions on how to do something (e.g. which candidate should get a job). A fun activity to develop this skill is to give groups of students this topic and ask them to decide on the profile of the perfect candidate, creating a list of 7 adjectives. The students are then re-grouped and asked to persuade the other members of the group that their selection is the best while compiling a second, negotiated list. The group members who retain the most from their original lists are the winners. Note down useful phrases that you hear the students using while doing this task and discuss these at the end for future reference.
This can be practised by giving the students a fairly controversial topic, such as ‘Friends are more important than family’ and asking the students to decide whether they agree, disagree or have no opinion, making notes on their main arguments to support their viewpoint. Divide the students into groups ensuring that there is a mix of views within each group. Explain that for this discussion, the aim is to keep their voices low and try to control their emotions as far as possible. Monitor and give feedback on these areas.
One of the most important things for this skill is for students to learn when it is and isn’t appropriate to interrupt and how to do it. Very often students will talk over each other in an effort to get their point across and forget to listen.
To practise this, you can get your students to make a list in small groups of when it is and isn’t appropriate to interrupt other speakers. They should include things like ‘not appropriate during the middle of a point, if the speaker has not said very much previously, or when you are feeling angry and liable to say something you’ll regret’. It is appropriate when the speaker has been dominating the discussion for too long, what the speaker is saying is completely irrelevant to the topic, or you don’t understand the point he / she has made’.
You can then give them or elicit a list of phrases which they might use to interrupt politely (e.g. ‘Can i just add something here?’, ‘Sorry I’d just like to clarify something,’ etc.) The students then write five of these on slips of paper (one per slip) and have a group discussion on a given topic. The aim is to use all of the language on their slips. When they have used a phrase, they put the slip in the middle of the table. The other students in the group judge whether the interruption was appropriate / polite. If not, they take the slip back and try again.
Use functional language
Depending on the types of group discussions that you plan to do with your class, it is useful to draw up a list of useful functional language for the students to refer to. This could include phrases for functions such as ‘Giving reasons’, ‘Giving your opinion’, ‘Agreeing and disagreeing’, etc. You can either make up the list yourself and distribute it or get the students to do this. For each group discussion, you can then refer them to the appropriate section of the list and give them a few moments to consider the language before beginning the discussion.
Setting up group discussions
There are several key things to consider when setting up group discussions in the classroom to ensure that they run successfully.
- Give the students some planning time either individually or in small groups. Don’t just give them the topic and say ‘go’! It is often useful to discuss some associated vocabulary or functional language that they might find useful
- Choose topics which you are confident your students will find interesting.
- Get them to brainstorm some ideas for discussions they would like to do and use this as a starting point
- Ensure a balance between input and practice
- Use a variety of styles / types
- Vary group size and procedure
Some companies do selection group discussions with very large groups of people – over ten in some cases. If your students will be facing these types of group discussions in the future make sure they get some practice doing them. It can also be useful to mix classes of students so they have practice doing discussions with people they don’t already know.
- Encourage group discussions outside class time
Give students some extra feedback forms to use to give each other input on how they perform in group discussions outside of class.
Giving and encouraging feedback
Feedback can take several forms and it is a good idea to vary the way it is given. Students can observe each other doing group discussions and give each other feedback on the specific areas of input that you have covered (ideally using a feedback form that you have created).
- Additionally, students can do a ‘Reflective group feedback exercise’ where at the end of the group discussion they discuss how effective each of the participants was during the discussion. Again, giving them some focused questions to guide this stage will help them.
- You could also try video-taping the group discussions and playing sections of these back to the class to analyse. Some students find this extremely useful.
- Finally, monitor the groups yourself and make notes for feedback on whole groups or individual performances. Keeping a record of these will help you and the students to see where they have improved.
As we have seen, group discussions can take a variety of formats and are useful for all types of students. They can be done in preparation for job interviews or as extended speaking practice simply to increase fluency.
It is important to consider the different sub-skills that are involved in participating in a group discussion and ensure that you do activities that address each of these. Additionally, structuring and varying the way that feedback is given will help the students to identify areas for improvement.
Amy Lightfoot, British Council, India
This article was originally published in 2007
I read Amy Lightfoot's article on ''Group discussion skills'' that was edited on 17 June 2010.
In my opinion, to apply analysing activities during group discussions gave a chance to students to feel free.they can think and have a talk with their own opinions.
I the article very useful it gave me good plans how can I organise my future lessons. I got information on setting and applying skills and encouraging learners to be participate actively.
I also find it helpful to give students specific rules for how they are to talk to each other in groupwork - rules like 'everyone must share all their information' , 'everyone must speak equally', 'everyone is responsible for good groupwork', 'everyone must give reasons and explanations', 'everyone must ask for reasons and explanations' and so on. This method of explicit ground rules for group work has been very successful in British primary schools, where it has helped children learn to solve maths problems in groups - and researchers noted that not only did they solve the problems 'better', but the individual IQs of the children also went up! I'm not sure whether we are able to influence our students' IQs like this, but it certainly helped mixed nationality classes who appreciated having one set of rules that we all followed and were able to refer to.
There are complete lesson plans plus a little bit more background in this article in Humanising Language Teaching:
Let me know how you get on if you try this method!
Following Mercer (2000) and his team, I have used Exploratory Talk to help ESL learners manage their group discussions in a PhD project. My study has shown that by using exploratory talk as one of the means to 'talk and think together', students are able to discuss more effectively in a group. Using formulaic utterances like 'what do you think, can you explain more, I agree, I dont agree, i am with you, but...' the students are able to proceed with their dialogue or conversation even though their vocabulary is limited. and this is in the context of Malaysia, where we have multiethnics like the Malay, the Chinese and the Indians, together with some international students who are enrolled in the English courses. I agree with Jess that having specific rules in the class also helps because everyone is tuned in to the same rules that they have agreed beforehand.
I think Exploratory talk has some potential in ESL classrooms. more studies should be done to investigate the effectiveness of exploratory talk in the natural classroom context. Mine is among the many studies conducted in a different context rather than in the UK.
Mercer, N. (2000) Words and Minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.
The success of video-taping group discussions as a form of feedback is interesting, though we have to be careful about students being open to this idea. The dynamics of the class play an important role in the type feedback we use in a speaking skills lesson.